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IPS board candidates debate innovation schools, racial equity, and budget cuts

Children near indoor stairs of Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School, one of 26 innovation schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School is one of 26 innovation schools in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Alan Petersime for Chalkbeat

Ten candidates for Indianapolis Public Schools board all emphasized the need to close educational gaps for Black students and improve neighborhood schools, in a Tuesday night debate hosted by Chalkbeat Indiana and WFYI.

Their stances varied on one controversial issue that has divided the district: IPS’ partnerships with charter and nonprofit operators to run what are known as innovation schools. The district most notably uses the strategy to try to turn around low-performing schools.

“Some of those schools are struggling still,” said Elizabeth Gore, who is in a four-way race to keep her at-large seat. “They have not, I feel, met the quota that I would like to see. So at this point, I have a problem with innovative schools. I’d like to see a moratorium on them until we can find out what works and what doesn’t work.”

Four seats on the seven-member board are up for election Nov. 3. Advocacy groups have drawn the usual battle lines between candidates who back innovation schools and those who are skeptical of the strategy. In six years, IPS has grown to include 26 innovation schools among the 72 schools in its portfolio.

Gore’s challengers in the at-large race, which represents the entire district, were split on innovation schools. 

“I’m all for parents being able to choose what they think is best for their young people,” said Kenneth Allen, program director of the Indiana Trafficking Victims Assistance Program and chairman of the Indiana Commission on the Social Status of Black Males. He added that he wants more transparency around innovation schools.

“I’m a little on the fence,” said Kendra McKnight, whose children attended an innovation school. While she liked that families have more choices, she said different policies and teaching strategies at her children’s innovation school were sometimes confusing. “The innovative school wasn’t really beneficial to me and my children.”

Ellis Noto, an Army veteran who works for the U.S. Department of Defense, said he liked that innovation schools allow teachers “a little more flexibility.” Teachers at innovation schools aren’t covered by the district’s union contract. But he also raised concerns about vetting the quality of innovation school strategies.

Watch the forum in full here:

In the District 4 race to represent the west side and south side, the innovation school issue pits longtime board member Diane Arnold against vocal critic Christina Smith. Arnold has backed innovation school partnerships during her tenure on the school board, while Smith has criticized the district for not involving families and community members enough in forging those partnerships, which she believes take control away from local schools.

“I think that we really need to work on strengthening our neighborhood schools,” Smith said. “If we can get more parents to invest in the community, invest in their neighborhood school, and not only be looking to magnet programs that have limited numbers of seats, we can bring and keep people in the district.”

Smith said word-of-mouth discouraged her from sending her children to their neighborhood school, leading her family to choose magnet options.

Arnold agreed but also defended innovation schools: “So I think it’s obvious innovation schools have been a positive for the district and more students have come back. We have to raise the quality of every school in the district … so that every neighborhood school is as good as every innovation and every choice school.” 

Candidates also discussed how a tightening budget could potentially lead to IPS closing schools. In District 2, which covers the far east side, incumbent Venita Moore said the district should work with lawmakers and community partners to make clear where additional funding or support is needed.

“We need to be able to advocate very loudly about where we are and what we’re doing,” Moore said.

Challenger Daqavise Winston, a former IPS behavior specialist, said he didn’t want to see more school closures on the east side.

“I won’t let any schools in District 2 be closed, especially considering the fact that we have one middle school and both of our high schools have been closed here recently,” he said. “It’s unacceptable for us not to have a public high school on the far east side.”

In the race for an open seat in District 1, which represents the near east side and southeast side, candidates addressed racial equity in response to a question about Black IPS students recording lower passing rates on state tests than do other student groups.

“I think we have to do a better job of not relying on standardized testing as a way of evaluating success,” said Brandon Randall, a program director for a youth services nonprofit, pointing to racial biases in test questions. “They’re not equitable, they’re not culturally competent. And so we have to find other measurements, other evaluation methods.”

Will Pritchard, who is on the IPS board’s finance committee and works for a company that specializes in low-income housing tax credits, said the district can better support Black students if it hires more teachers of color. About three-quarters of IPS teachers are white, serving a student population that is 80% nonwhite.

“The second thing is we need to create a support system for kids that come from less stable situations, so we need to build a support team to help them go into the class and get ready to learn and not have all of the responsibility fall on teachers,” Pritchard said.

Read up on the candidates’ positions through our voter guide. Watch a recording of the full debate here.

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